More than 300,000 books from Turkish schools and libraries have been destroyed since 2016, the Turkish Ministry of Education has announced. Turkish officials claim the books are linked to Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim cleric which the current regime considers to be responsible for the 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt — however, critics say that the book burning goes way beyond that.
Destroying books is rarely a sign of a healthy democracy. Yet, with seeming pride, Turkey’s education minister Ziya Selçuk announced last week that 301,878 books had been destroyed. This is part of a government crackdown on anything linked to Fethullah Gülen. Gülen is regarded as an enemy by Erdoğan’s party, charged with multiple crimes against the state, although the evidence is not compelling.
The figure of over 300,000 books was first reported by the popular newspaper Hürriyet, which raised some important questions about this decision (such as, if the books are indeed subversive, then why did they end up in schools in the first place?). This was also confirmed with images of books being seized and burned published by the online news outlet Kronos27 — which seems to be bouncing online and offline for unknown reasons.
The situation was also analyzed by a website called Turkey Purge, which describes itself as “a small group of young journalists who are trying to be the voice for Turkish people who suffer under an oppressive regime.” They report that a 2016 mathematics book was banned because a question read “from point F to point G” — these being the initials of Fethullah Gülen. A similar situation was described in December 2016 by the Turkish newspaper BirGün, which reported that 1.8 million textbooks had been destroyed and reprinted for containing the word Pennsylvania — which is where Gülen lives in a guarded compound. It’s hard to justify these actions under reasonable attempts to reduce a harmful influence.
Free speech organizations have spoken out against these efforts. PEN International, a worldwide association of writers founded in London in 1921 to promote literature and intellectual co-operation, says that the publishing landscape in Turkey has been “decimated”, with over a quarter of all publishing houses being shut down for “spreading terrorist propaganda”. Furthermore, after a state of emergency was decreed after the attempted 2016 coup, over 200 media outlets and publishers have been shut down — and almost 6,000 academics have been dismissed from 118 public universities. Turkey is undergoing a crisis and there are reasons to believe that the current government is using the attempted coup as an excuse to crack down on intellectual freedom and freedom of speech.
“The government has dramatically increased its influence on the media and publishing landscape, thereby silencing critical voices,” said PEN. “We call on the Turkish authorities to permit the reopening and independent operation of publishing houses, and to urgently end their far-reaching crackdown on freedom of expression, which continues unabated.”